Friday, May 29, 2009

Indulge the Impulse

No one has control over their impulses; we can only manage our responses. The brave man is not the one with no fear. It’s the one who faces that fear and does what scares him, anyway. Our responses to base impulses define our character.

Writers get to have it both ways. How many of us have been less than pleased with how we handled a situation in our lives, then wrote a scene where a character does what we wish we had done originally? Maybe the fictional incident wasn’t originally intended as a do-over, but you recognized the potential as you worked on it.

The flip side is also true. Doing the right thing can be hard, draining, and initially unsatisfying. Sure, you’ll feel good later because you rose above your impulse, but it’s frustrating at the time because you really wanted to tell that asshole off! Let your characters serve this valuable and cathartic role for you. Not only are there no consequences to you, but his inappropriate or disproportionate response can add conflict to your story.

Example: My WIP has a subplot where a male cop has gone against regulations to help a couple of kids because he knows the regs will make a bad situation worse. He confides in a female cop, who has the exact opposite opinion, and has personal experience to back her up. New on the force, she goes to a superior to ask what she should do, not knowing the superior has it in for the male cop. The superior notifies Family Services, the kids are picked up, and the male cop finds himself in a difficult situation.

He accuses the woman of going to Family Services behind his back, and she comes clean. She only asked advice, didn’t know the superior would run with it, and then lays out the experience that caused her so much concern. The male cop listens, and sees she’s suffering. He imagines how hard this must have been for her, with what she’s seen, new here, not knowing who to trust. What he says is, “Don’t ever go behind my back again.”

This is, of course, absolutely the wrong thing to say, but he’s pissed. It also allows what could have been a dead end subplot to spin off its own little series of events that can carry through to another book, if I decide to make a series of this.

I strongly believe we should treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. Your characters? Resist the urge to exhibit their better natures. Hurt feelings are fodder for ideas we would not have thought of in a vacuum.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Wrestling the Sloth

Tomorrow is one month since I temporarily set aside the work in progress to re-evaluate the plot. Since then, I solved the problems that held me up (more remain, but they’ll be surmountable in context), gained a firmer grasp of my characters (thanks to some excellent advice on Robert Gregory Browne’s writing blog, specifically here), written a flash piece for Patti Abbott’s current challenge, watched a lot of playoff hockey, gone to several events leading up to my daughter’s impending high school graduation (congratulations, Bink), watched some baseball, spent a weekend in North Carolina, bought new windows for the house, and written a grand total of 1500 words.

Considering I like to write 500-1,000 words a day when drafting, 1500 isn’t much for a month. Usually pretty good about getting my ass in the seat, I have manufactured—er, I mean discovered—excuses—er, I mean reasons—to evade writing on all but a small handful of days.

I’m not sure why this is. I’ve been busy in the past and managed to compartmentalize everything so it didn’t interfere too much with writing time. It could be due to my continued ambivalence toward this project. It’s a good idea, and I think it has potential to be a good story. Of course, I thought all my previous efforts were good, too, and publishers have lined up in droves not to buy any of them.

I can also see where this book has potential to suck if it’s not done right. I don’t remember thinking this about the others. One maybe, and I’m still not sure about that one. This WIP is somewhat of a departure for me, as I’ll spend more time away from the actual primary plot than usual, developing a subplot or two, creating a more detailed fictional world, and going into more depth with my protagonist’s personal life. I’ve seen all of these things work in the hands of other writers. Unfortunately, they’re all better writers.

I’ll draft a page tonight. And tomorrow. Two each on Saturday and Sunday, Stanley Cup finals or not. By then I should be back in rhythm. As the Beloved Spousal Equivalent says, I’ll eat the elephant one bite at a time. The end result will either suck, or it won’t. If it does, no harm done. I’ll have learned something, even if it’s only not to let my ambition overreach my talent.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Jacking the Beanstalk

(Or, "What if Mickey Spillane wrote fairy tales?")

Times were hard for the old man and me since Ma died. There was more work to do, or at least there was more work not getting done. My weekly visits to Trixie Hicks were the only fun to be had on the farm.

The old man didn’t help. He was no pleasure when Ma was around and started hitting the sauce even harder with her gone. It didn’t help his personality.

I didn’t want to come when he called that day to talk about the cow. He’d been on an all-night bender and was working on the hair of the dog cure for his hangover. By noon he had a snoot full.

“I got a job for you, boy,” he said. His breath reeked of stale beer and fresh bourbon. “Take the cow into town and see what you can get for her.”

“But Bessie’s all we got for milk, Pa,” I said, or started to say. I ducked in time for the empty bourbon bottle to sail over my shoulder. He wasn’t so drunk to throw the full one. He got up from the table when I wasn’t looking and gave me the back of his hand across my face. Not so hard that it hurt, but hard enough to snap my head back.

“It ain’t milk we need, boy! That beat up old football with legs don’t give enough milk to feed us! Now mind me and get yourself into town and see what you can get for her! I don’t got all day to wait on you. Do I look like a man that got all day for you?! Do I?!”

He looked like a man who had all day to crawl inside a bottle. I didn’t tell him that. I’d seen these moods and knew to stay away from him. He’d drink himself into a peaceful stupor soon enough, but he’d be one mean cuss on the way.

I went outside and got the rope on old Bessie. Town was a long walk on a hot day and I wasn’t half way before I started wondering what Trixie was up to, and if she’d be game for a little skinny-dipping. I was thinking a lot more about that than about selling the cow, or I would have noticed the guy before he stepped out from behind the tree and startled me.

“Hey, kid, how’s tricks?” he asked from the side of his mouth. He had a toothpick going in the other corner. How he managed to talk and keep that toothpick happy was quite a trick. “What’s your name?”

“Who wants to know?” I can hold my own in the witty repartee department.

“Hey, just a friend. I see you got a cow with you. Not a lot of folks taking their cows into town on a hot day like this. I was wondering what was up is all.”

“You got an eye for the obvious, pal,” I said, looking up and down the deserted road. “Maybe I’m taking her into town to see a movie. We’re farm people. We do things like that.”

“Nah, no movie for her. Not today, anyways,” the sharpie said. “You look like a boy with a mission. You got plans for that cow, don’t you, kid?”

He was getting on my nerves. “Yeah, you pegged it, Ace. I’m planning on winning the Derby with her. Now blow.”

He took the toothpick out of his mouth and moved in front of me on the path. “Look here, kid,” he said, pointing the pick at me for emphasis, “show a little respect. I’m about to do you a big favor and you don’t even appreciate it.”

“I don’t see no one here doing me no favors,” I said. “All I see is some slick in a cheap suit.”

“That’s because you got no vision, kid,” he said. “I know things about people. I know things about you.”

“Like for instance,” I said.

“Like for instance you’re taking that cow into town to sell her. What are you hoping to get for that broken-down old milker? A few shekels, maybe?”

I was ready to go. The line formed at Trixie’s pretty early on days like this. “You said something about a favor you were going to do me.” I tried to get past him.

“Take it easy, kid,” he said. He wasn’t rattled, but he was getting impatient. “You’re not going to get much for old Bossie—“


“Whatever, Bossie, Bessie, she’s two steps from being a porterhouse and we both know it. All you’re going to get is enough dough to buy three day’s hooch for your old man. I got a better deal than you’re going to get in town.”

“Better deal how? More dough?”

“Forget about dough, kid. Dough is for losers. You want to cash in quick, then go ahead. Be a loser your whole life. I got something better than dough here.”

Better than dough was something I had no familiarity with. “OK, I’ll jump. What’s better than dough?”

He looked up and down the road like he was afraid someone would see us. He got up real close to me and pulled something wrapped in a handkerchief from an inside pocket of his suit coat. He laid the handkerchief in the palm of his hand and opened it for me to see. “Here you go, kid. I got beans.”

“You got beans?” I didn’t raise my voice. It wouldn’t have been worth it. It was too hot, and he was nuts. I wanted to get to town, then see if Trixie was ready to go to town. “You keep them. I know what you can do with them, too.” I started walking again.

“Sure, you say that now,” he said, walking along with me, “but you don’t know about these beans. These ain’t ordinary beans, kid. These is magic beans.”

That stopped me. A chance for magic beans doesn’t come along every day. “Magic how?”

“Magic like in you put them in the ground and stuff happens.”

“I trade this cow for those beans and stuff’ll happen when I get home.”

“No, no, no, I mean good stuff,” he said, smiling. “I’m telling you straight. These beans is the real deal. You got to trust me.”

“Why?” I asked. “Why should you do me this big favor?”

He got a cagey look, like it was something he didn’t want to tell me. He finally decided he had to.

“I ain’t lived the best life, kid. I done some things that don’t put me on the Big Guy’s short list of companions, if you get my drift. One day I get a visit from this fairy godmother. She tells me that I only got a few chances left to do good, and she’s willing to help me. She gave me these beans and told me that they could make me rich beyond my wildest dreams, but to prove that I had really changed, that I would have to let someone else cash in on them.”

I couldn’t argue with a fairy godmother. If he really got the beans from her, then they were the real deal, and he must have got them from her, because who would make up a story like that? I did the math in my head and rolled over for him. I handed him Bessie’s rope and he gave me the beans.

“You won’t regret this, kid,” he said as he walked away with the cow.

I walked a few steps before it occurred to me. “Hey, wait a minute. If the fairy godmother wanted you to make sure someone else got these beans, why didn’t you just give them to me?”

He shook his head at me. “She said ‘do good,’ not ‘be a schmuck.’ Now go on home and plant your beans.”

Going home and telling the old man what I’d done was going to be a hard sell and I knew it. I had a better idea. I could do a little seed planting at Trixie’s first. The beans could wait.

The old man wore me out when I got home and told him what I’d done. He threw the beans out the window and hit me a few licks with his belt. He was reaching for the frying pan when he got tangled up in his suspenders and fell. I lammed and he got down to some serious drinking.

I slept late the next morning. The sun didn’t come in my window like it usually does. I looked outside and saw the biggest beanstalk I had ever seen growing up from where the old man had tossed the sharpie’s magic beans. I snuck through the kitchen. The old man was passed out dead to this world and the next and the floor was littered with his dead soldiers. I got around him and went outside.

The beanstalk had to be twenty feet around if it was a foot. I tried to see how high it had grown, but it went up into a cloud. It looked sturdy enough, so I started climbing.

I climbed all the way to the cloud. I could see a house in the distance. I’d never seen a house in a cloud before and it looked pretty solid up there, so I jumped off the beanstalk and started walking toward the house.

It was farther than I thought. The more I walked the bigger the joint got. Not mansion big, with lots of rooms, but giant big, with ceilings high enough to give a painter a nosebleed. I had a little trouble climbing the front stairs, but I managed. There was no way I could reach the doorknob, but there was a pet door right in front of me and I went through it. I hoped I wouldn’t come across Fido while I was there.

I like my women tall, but she was too much of a good thing. Ten feet tall and not an inch in the wrong place. She turned when I came in and I caught a look that told me she hadn’t seen the likes of me in a while. I get that look a lot. I bet she did, too.

Ten feet made her about four feet taller than me, and it gave me a view I didn’t usually get from a woman. Her legs were bigger than my arms, but they were perfectly proportioned to hold your attention for a while before you got too curious about what they were holding up. What they were holding up was worth waiting for. A nicely tapered waist led up to a major league rack, which hit me just about eye level. Long blond hair framed an oval shaped face and made the luster of her green eyes even more pronounced. I’d heard people talk of big, busty, blondes before, but this one got the blue ribbon.

“Hello, little man,” she said in a voice like forty weight oil on a cold day. “How did you get way up here?”

“Beanstalk,” I said as matter of factly as I could.

“Oh,” she said, like that explained everything. “Could you use any breakfast?”

“Sure. A few eggs would go good right about now. Scrambled, if you don’t mind.”

“I don’t. I like to scramble men’s eggs,” she said and shot me a look.

I walked over closer to the stove where she was already whipping up my breakfast. “You’re OK, Toots. I have a weakness for tall blondes who know their way around a kitchen. You live around here?”

She paused from stirring the eggs for a second. “You don’t waste any time, do you, Little Man? As a matter of fact, I live right here. I mean in this house, but I might as well say here in this kitchen. Why doesn’t some big hunk of a man take me away from all this?”

I was standing right beside her. “Normally, I would volunteer, but I think your definition of ‘big hunk of a man’ is different than mine,” I said. She turned and a breast brushed my cheek. “Do you like to slow dance?” I asked.

She laughed a full throaty laugh that made her toss back her head and move her hair around. “Yes, I do. I was wondering if you like to limbo?” she said with an evil grin, running her tongue across her lower lip a couple of times.

Before I could answer a small explosion shook the house. I felt the floorboards shaking as a voice that could have come from a loudspeaker bellowed:

“Fee, fie, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make me bread.”

I thought about telling him that I was German-Irish, but the rattling going on from everything that wasn’t nailed down made me suspect that he wasn’t the debating type. The woman looked down at me with alarm and reached for the oven door.

“Quick! Get in here! That’s my husband, the giant. If he finds you here no one else will ever find you again!”

“In there? Get a grip, sister. I know the baked in a pie story, too, and I ain’t no blackbird.” I ran for the stove, but slid under it. I made it just as he came through the other door.

Calling him a giant was no exaggeration. Fourteen feet tall and built like a defensive lineman, the dust rose from the floor rose every time he set down a foot. “Woman,” he said in a voice that still rattled the china, “I needs me breakfast. Here,” he said, slinging a freshly killed heifer onto the cutting board, “I’ll be wantin’ some steak with me eggs this morning.”

She set right about it and whipped him up a side of beef and about two dozen eggs in no time flat. I looked around for a way to get out while he ate. Blondie hadn’t ratted me out yet, but depending on her didn’t seem like the smartest thing.

I mentally measured the distance from my hiding place to the door and had started mustering up some courage when I saw the chicken. It looked like an ordinary chicken, pretty large by my standards, but not by the morning’s standards. It walked in through the pet door and started scratching around the kitchen. Normally, I’d think that was strange for a chicken, but not today.

“There’s my pretty bird,” the giant said in what must have been as close to a tender voice as he ever got. He reached a grizzled paw and the chicken jumped into it. He gently raised his hand and put the bird on the table.

“Now, then, my birdie, do what I keeps you for,” he said and rubbed one finger under the hen’s breast.

The chicken ruffled her feathers a little bit, made a few clucking sounds and strained a little. Then she laid an egg. It was about the size of a regular jumbo egg, but it must have weighed four pounds. It was solid gold.

Now they had my attention. If I played my cards right, I wouldn’t have traded the cow for a handful of beans; I would have traded it for a hen that laid golden eggs. That was a good deal no matter how you looked at it.

I laid low until the giant finished his breakfast and went into the next room for a nap. I waited to be sure he was sleeping, and for the hen to get to a position somewhere between me and the front door before I made a grab for it.

When the time came I was out from under the stove and had the chicken under my arm faster than my namesake could jump over a candlestick. I expected the blonde to say something, but she never opened her mouth. It was the chicken that did me in.

I never thought of chickens as having owner loyalty, but I had never owned a chicken that laid golden eggs before. I didn’t go two steps when it started screaming its fool head off. I heard the giant stop snoring and stir, but I never looked back. I made the pet door before he did.

I felt his hand brush the back of my shirt when he dove for me. I ran down the sides of the steps just as I had come up, but the chicken slowed me down, flapping its wings and clucking to beat the band.

I was off the porch and onto the cloud before the giant cleared the door. I had to make it to the beanstalk before he did or I was a goner. I was about halfway there when I realized I’d never make it at the pace he was making up the ground. I started zigzagging, hoping that he was so mad he’d forget that my only escape was the beanstalk and just chase me, where my agility might be able to make up for his straight ahead speed.

He went for it. The more he chased me the madder he got. I got to the beanstalk ahead of him, and started down the opposite side as he reached for me and missed again. Now the size of the stalk was to my advantage. I carved out a few footholds on my way up and I made good speed on the way down. It was harder for him. It took him a while to get the hang of it. The beanstalk swayed like an antenna in a hurricane while he figured it out.

I made it the bottom just as he cleared the cloud. He was picking up speed as I ran to the tool shed and grabbed the chain saw, hoping it had some gas in it. He saw me and started to hurry. I got the saw started on the second pull and cut through the beanstalk in no time. The whole thing came down and the giant landed on his head with a sickening thud.

He didn’t move, but I wasn’t taking any chances. I ran into the house where the old man was still passed out and grabbed the .45 from the drawer. I ran back into the yard and pumped two rounds into the giant’s head, right between the horns, and saw brains and blood mingle with the watery sap from the beanstalk.

I sat down, exhausted. I must have passed out, because the next thing I remember the old man was shaking me awake. “Come on, boy, wake up, you look terrible. Come on in the house and have some soup. You’ll feel better.”

Seeing the beanstalk and the giant in the yard didn’t faze him a bit. God only knew what he saw when the DTs grabbed him. I dragged myself up and followed him into the kitchen.

The soup tasted great. The old man could cook when he was of a mind to, and he was usually hungry after a drunk. I was swiping a hunk of bread through the bottom of the bowl when it occurred to me that we didn’t have any chickens and I had just eaten chicken noodle soup.

“Where did you get the chicken?” I asked.

“I found it in the yard,” he said as pleasantly as he could. “I figured you must have brought it.”

No jury would have convicted me if I had killed him. I didn’t. I turned him in for ratting out Snow White to the Evil Queen, and Trixie Hicks and I lived happily ever after on the reward money.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Missed Connections

Everyone has favorite writers. There’s something about each of them that resonates in you, even if the writer isn’t particularly popular. It may be because you’re ahead of the curve, or possibly his plots or sense of humor appeal to you more than others. Whatever the reason, we all have authors we like more than others, quality of writing aside.

The flip side of this are the authors we just don’t get. I suspect we all have them, writers who received virtually universal acclaim, but don’t touch our reading G-spot. I’m like that with Ross Macdonald. (I understand this makes me a Philistine.) I’ve read several of his books, and I can appreciate why everyone thinks he’s great, but they just don’t wrap me up the way some other writers do. It’s not the subject matter; Declan Hughes writes of long-buried family secrets and I’m in the tank for him in a major way. It’s not Archer; I like him, even feel sorry for him a little, as he sees, and is affected by, so many situations he can never put right. It’s not the writing. I may be a Philistine, but anyone who says Macdonald isn’t a gifted writer is a moron. Still, his books don’t heat me up like others I could name.

To pick someone alive, there’s George Pelecanos. I recognize what a superb writer he is; he wrote some of my favorite episodes of The Wire, and his web site is full of insights. I’ve seen him speak, and he appears to be a genuinely thoughtful and engaging gentleman. I appreciate the social awareness present in his books. Still, given the choice between a Pelecanos and a Lehane, I’ll take the Lehane, though I’d have a bear of a time explaining why.

No offense to either Macdonald or Pelecanos. I freely and fully acknowledge their talent. It’s not them; it’s me. (And haven’t we all heard that before?) What about you? Who is it you just don’t “get,” and can you say why?

Recommended Reads

I had been posting recommendations of good reads once a month until I got sick over the holidays and let it lapse. I let it alone because no discussions had been generated, and I didn’t see much point to adding to the multitude of unsolicited reading lists. A discussion in Crimespace a few weeks ago led me to reconsider.

Is it ever a bad idea to promote a book you enjoy? The publishers do damn little for most authors in that regard. Traditional media review outlets trim the space allotted almost daily. Word of mouth recommendations become more important to writers every day; it’s on the recipient to decide if that mouth has a word worth listening to.

Catching up, here are the books I’ve read since the first of the year that I recommend in good conscience.

A Darker Domain, by Val McDermid – My first McDermid. Made me wonder what the hell I’d been waiting for.

The Given Day, by Dennis Lehane – This is the book Lehane was born to write. He covers the ground from Babe Ruth to labor relations to anarchists with empathy, humor, and wonderful writing that never takes you out of the story. Brilliant.

The Ice Harvest, by Scott Phillips – I saw the movie and liked it. As expected, the book is better. Phillips has a deadpan style that carries a story of betrayal and violence lightly, and is laugh out loud funny in places, never inappropriately.

Hardcore Hardboiled, edited by Todd Robinson – Solid collection marking the best of Thuglit for 2007. A wide range of stories told in a wide range of styles, all of which include people you’d rather not meet alone in a dark alley.

The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler – Yes, it’s about the eighth time I’ve read it, and yes, everyone knows all about it, but how can anyone read it and not recommend it? Still pretty much the gold standard for PI fiction.

What the Dead Know, by Laura Lippman – Everything a mystery should be.

Fifty Grand, by Adrian McKinty – The first book of McKinty’s post-Forsythe saga is an outstanding thriller. The rare book where the style is as good as the story, and enhances it.

Priest, by Ken Bruen – I read The Guards Christmas week, and it didn’t excite me. Of course, I was sick and kept dozing off, so that’s not a true test. Bruen’s style may be an acquired taste. If so, then I’m acquiring it.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Persistent? Or Stubborn?

Murderati’s two most recent posts (by Tess Gerritsen and Rob Gregory Browne) have dealt with the fine line between persistence and stubbornness. Each is worth a read. Both are timely for me.

The detective in my PI series was intended to be a pretty normal guy. The arc of the series showed how the violence he kept encountering wore on him, made him more violent himself, and what he did about it. My critique group liked him. My agent liked him. Editors said he was boring.

I've taken a break from him to work on something else, but later this year I'm going back to his books and changing him just a bit. Since most of the stories deal with parent-child relationships at some level, and he is very close to his daughter (who lives with her mother), I decided he and his ex had another child, older than the daughter, who was killed in an accident when he was small. The detective wasn't at fault, but some decision that seemed insignificant at the time could have prevented the child’s death if decided differently. This broke up his marriage, and he still can’t get past it, so the cases that keep presenting themselves to him are that much more painful. He can’t really avoid them, as he’s usually well into them before he recognizes the parent-child element of the case he’s working.

Maybe this will work. Maybe it won’t. I’m hoping I’ve taken persistence right to the stubborn line, but not crossed it. We’ll see.